Vaccine equity: Release the patents!

For those of us concerned about global vaccine equity—“none of us is safe until we’re all safe,” the politicians keep saying—there was good news and bad news over the weekend.

Good news is that Pope Francis lent his powerful voice to those calling for fair access. “In the name of God,” he said Saturday to a world gathering of social movements, “I ask all the great pharmaceutical laboratories to release the patents. Make a gesture of humanity and allow every country, every people, every human being, to have access to the vaccines. There are countries where only three or four per cent of the inhabitants have been vaccinated.”

Bad news is that the World Trade Organization has again failed to agree to suspend intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. MoneyControl, a Mumbai-based financial news site, reported that further action on the patent waiver may not come until December, when trade ministers of all WTO member states will meet.

The WTO’s failure last week to “liberate” the COVID vaccines from patent protection was front page news in Mexico City, but got limited attention in English-language media.

More than 100 countries, led by India and South Africa, have demanded a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccine manufacturers. Such a waiver would suspend certain parts of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) so that vaccines and testing technology for COVID-19 could be easily shared. It was the WTO’s “TRIPS Council” that failed to make any progress during meetings Oct. 13-14.

The WTO works by consensus: all 164 member states must agree to any change. MoneyControl said the lack of progress is due to opposition from the European Union and a handful of other rich countries, including Switzerland, Norway and the United Kingdom. “They have been emboldened by a noncommittal United States, despite the support of almost all WTO member nations. Since all WTO decisions have to be unanimous, there is nothing that can be done even if a single nation is unwilling,” a senior trade negotiator said. U.S. President Joe Biden said May 5 that he supported the waiver.

“AIDS drugs for every nation” was one of the cries heard at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006. Photo: Jim Hodgson  

I have written about this issue before and, indeed, the current fight to overcome the big pharmaceutical companies’ patent “rights” is an echo of the struggles in the first years of the new millennium to win access to antiretrovirals and other HIV and AIDS medications.  

Then as now, Canada has refused to support the TRIPS waiver. In May, 75 MPs from all parties sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in support of the COVID vaccine waiver. 

On Oct. 14, Vancouver MP Don Davies of the New Democratic Party spoke again about the struggle for vaccine equity. “We’ve seen the incredible impact that vaccines have had in the fight against COVID-19 in developed countries, and much of the research for COVID vaccines has been publicly funded,” he said.

“Yet many countries in the developing world have been unable to access vaccines due to global patent regulations. This is unacceptable not just from a humanitarian standpoint, but also a practical one, as we know that without a coordinated global vaccination effort, new COVID-19 variants will continue to develop.” 

Medical Xpress reports that COVID vaccination rates are on average 30 times higher in wealthier countries than in impoverished ones. For medical reasons, some countries are now rolling out third doses of vaccines while billions of people have yet to get access to a first dose.

The WTO director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said the gap in vaccination rates between the haves and the have-nots was “devastating for the lives and livelihoods of Africans” and “morally unacceptable.”

Pope Francis took up the vaccine equity issue in the context of the fourth in a series of world gatherings of social movements. He said he would be a “pest”—“pedigüino,” in Spanish: one who asks too many questions—on vaccines, mining companies, debt cancellation and other issues. His calls:

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